• Rosemary Martoma, MD, FAAP

Phone Calls May Be Free for Federal Prisoners, but Prisoners Aren’t Free to Make Calls

Two weeks after the nationwide federal prison lockdown began on April 1st, 2020, POLITICO obtained a letter written by BOP Director Michael Carvajal to Congress stating, “Effective April 9, 2020, telephone calls were made free for the inmate population.” That population (which includes my husband), however, has had its access to phones heavily restricted since the lockdown began. Director Carvajal added, “Video-visiting, which is available to our female population, was also made free on that same date.” In reality, because 92.9% of the federal prison population is male, the vast majority of federal prisoners don’t have access to video-visiting technology.

For more than three weeks, prisoners at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Miami camp have been confined to their eighty-man dormitories, where social distancing is not a possibility. They have been forced to pass their days in close proximity to one another, surrounded by a cacophony of coughing and relegated to eating meals on their bunk beds. The types of sanitizers and disinfectants recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to protect against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) transmission are considered contraband in federal prisons. In the absence of these products, prisoners are subjected to unsanitary bathrooms and other shared facilities.

While the monthly call ration for every federal prisoner was increased from 300 to 500 minutes per month during the lockdown, concurrent restrictions can make it impossible to use that allowance. At FCI Miami, access to phone and email communication with the outside world was initially curtailed to a two-hour window on three weekdays; this week, the restriction was slightly relaxed to include all five weekdays. During the two-hour window, prisoners still have to navigate around everyday phone regulations: they must wait in long lines to use shared phones, each call must be less than 15 minutes in duration, and 30 minutes must elapse between calls. Similar restrictions apply to email, which still isn’t free-of-charge during the lockdown.

Even with limited access to communication, federal prisoners are acutely aware of the explosion of COVID-19 cases within the federal prison system, and many are focused on the potential for reprieve under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. As the BOP generates selective home confinement lists, prisoners try to decipher the rhyme and reason behind the lists, which don’t appear to follow Attorney General Barr’s selection criteria. This is a time when prisoners should be able to communicate with their lawyers confidentially, but they have no reasonable way to do that: legal visits were suspended over a month ago, and all phone calls and emails are monitored and recorded by the BOP.

The burden of restricted communication compounds unrest that is brewing behind prison walls amidst safety fears and a lack of transparency about the home confinement process. A week ago, on April 14th, 2020, the first eight beneficiaries of the CARES Act at FCI Miami camp were released. My husband wrote, “People screamed their goodbyes through thin-sliced windows, which could mostly be heard only by the ones who remained.” The lockdown, which was scheduled to end that day, was instead extended until May 18th, 2020.

The tensions are palpable on both sides of the wall. The paucity of prisoner access to communication leaves family members in the dark for extended periods of time - roughly 72 hours each weekend. Every federal prisoner that has died of COVID-19 related complications was hospitalized the day they complained of symptoms; all but two were unconscious and on a ventilator within 48 hours. Knowing that the BOP rarely notifies anyone when an incarcerated individual is hospitalized, family members are left to fear the worst: that each scant communication from their loved one might be their last.

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